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Spira, Natan Note ben Shelomoh

(1585–1633), rabbi, preacher, and kabbalist. Natan Note Spira (also Natan Nata Shapira) was born to a rabbinical family and was named after his grandfather, a rabbi in Grodno who was the author of Mavo she‘arim (1575) and Imre shefer (1597). Natan Note, a rabbi and head of the yeshiva in Kraków, became a famous kabbalist after composing Megaleh ‘amukot (published posthumously in 1637), in which he interpreted the prayer of Moses in the weekly Torah portion “Va-Etḥanan” (Deut. 3:23–25) in 252 different ways, some based on numerology (gimatriyah) or complex mathematical calculations and others on kabbalistic interpretations from various traditions.

Megaleh ‘amukot continues to be a widely circulated and influential work. Spira also wrote Megaleh ‘amukot ‘al ha-Torah (1795), previously unpublished portions of which were printed from a manuscript in Bene Berak in 1982–1985. His Ḥidushe anshe shem, on the halakhic code of Rabbi Yitsḥak Alfasi (Rif), has been appended to all editions of Alfasi since the Amsterdam printing of 1740.

In his writings, Spira expanded on the meaning of the equal numerical value of various expressions in, respectively, the world of sanctity and the world of the kelipah (“shells,” a kabbalistic term for representations of evil, or for what is not holy). He also clarified the mission of Judaism, in light of kabbalistic historiography, as one that aims to gather up the holy sparks scattered among gentiles in order to bring redemption nearer. Spira made a critical contribution to the dissemination of a synthetic kabbalistic tradition incorporating medieval sources, the Kabbalah of names and numerology, and the sixteenth- to seventeenth-century Lurianic Kabbalah of the school of Yisra’el Sarug. In Spira’s kabbalistic circles in Poland during the second half of the sixteenth century and the first third of the seventeenth, his associates explicated medieval kabbalistic works, drew connections between the various schools of Kabbalah, and printed books on such topics.

During the eighteenth century, Spira’s name was linked to a putative Sabbatian sect, involving Jews and Lutherans, that was connected to Yonatan Eybeschütz. Although the sect was established in the 1720s, its writings claimed Spira to be its founder, and maintained that he had received a divine revelation calling upon him to adopt the Christian faith. Eybeschütz was, in fact, descended from Spira, and indeed was proud of this lineage. But the historical anachronism that ties the lives of the two men has not been sufficiently clarified. Indeed, Spira died 32 years before the birth of the Sabbatian movement. The problematic connection is not entirely baseless, however, as scholars have claimed that Spira drew a great deal from Christianity and even revived various elements of the Jewish–Christian tradition that are found in midrashic literature. These common elements, however, were not regarded by Spira as a basis for affinity and identification. In his opinion, the Christian messiah was the opposite of the true messiah, and the Christian religion was a satanic version of the true faith; similarities between the religions actually make possible the battle against Christianity and its “nullification.”

A historical error may be the source of the mystery: it seems that Natan ben Shelomoh Spira of Kraków was confused with Natan ben Re’uven Shapira ha-Yerushalmi (d. 1667), who left Kraków for Jerusalem and was a kabbalist. The latter raised money in Amsterdam for the Jews of Jerusalem and made contact there with Dutch and English Christians with millenarian views, who regarded him as the rabbi who would bring Jews to acknowledge the truth of Christianity.

Although Spira died before the rise of the Sabbatian movement and its subsequent Jewish and Christian incarnations, the fact that Jewish, Jewish-Sabbatian, and Jewish-Christian sources all link him to messianism and to Christianity arouses interest, and points to the complexity of the connection between the Jewish and Christian worlds in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Suggested Reading

Shifra Asulin, “Hamarat dat ve-hebraizm ba-me’ah ha-sheva‘ ‘esreh be-Eropah,” in Ha-Ḥalom ve-shivro: Ha-Tenu‘ah ha-shabta’it u-sheluḥoteha; Meshiḥiyut shabta’ut u-frankizm, ed. Rachel Elior, vol. 1, pp. 423–470 (Jerusalem, 2001), see esp. pp. 463–465; Gustav B. Dalman, “Documente eines christlichen Geheimbundes unter den Juden im achtzehnten Jahrhundert,” Saat auf Hoffnung: Zeitschrift für die Mission der Kirche an Israel 27 (1890): 18–37; Yosef Dan and Ester Libes, eds., Sifriyat Gershom Shalom: Katalog, vol. 1 (Jerusalem, 1999), p. 378; Bernhard (Ḥayim Dov) Friedberg, Marganita Shapira: Korot u-fo‘olot rabenu Natan Shapira (Drohobycz [Drogobych, Ukr.], 1899), some of this work is duplicated with no indication of its source in “Toldot rabenu ha-meḥaber” by Shalom ha-Kohen Vais in Sefer Megaleh ‘Amukot, vol. 1 Be-Reshit, shemot, pp. 11–22 (Bene Berak, Isr., 1981/82); Jekuthiel Ginsburg, “R. Natan Shapira,” Ha-Tekufah 25 (1928/29): 488–497; Yehuda Liebes, “‘Al kat yehudit notsrit she-mekorah ba-shabta’ut,” in Sod ha-emunah ha-shabta’it: Kovets ma’amarim, pp. 212–237 (Jerusalem, 1995); Richard H. Popkin, “Rabbi Nathan Shapira’s Visit to Amsterdam in 1657,” in Dutch Jewish History, vol. 1, ed. Jozeph Michman and Tirtsah Levie, pp. 185–205 (Jerusalem, 1984); Yitsḥak Yesha‘yah Vais, “Hashlamot le-toldot rabenu Megaleh ‘Amukot,” in Sefer Megaleh ‘Amukot, vol. 1 Be-Reshit, shemot, pp. 293–294 (Bene Berak, Isr., 1981/82).



Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Green